Ramallah, Occupied West Bank - In 2011, when Palestinian detainees were released from Israeli prisons as part of a prisoner exchange deal, the West Bank and Gaza Strip were overcome with jubilation. Similar celebrations are expected in the coming week, when 26 Palestinians, most of whom have been languishing in Israeli prisons for more than 20 years, will be released.
As part of an agreement inked between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel, 104 detainees will be set free, having been incarcerated since before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1994. The 26 prisoners to be released this week will be the first batch, with the remainder being released at later stages in the negotiations. The agreement came as peace talks between Israel and the PA restart, following intensive shuttle diplomacy by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has visited the region six times since March.
This time around, however, there is trepidation - even fear - among Palestinians, that some of those slated for release will be re-arrested soon thereafter by Israel. Reasons for this fear, Palestinian prisoners' rights groups say, lie in past agreements - such as that made in 2011 when Corporal Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held by Hamas since 2006, was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.
"In the aftermath of the prisoner release of October 2011, several of those released in exchange for Shalit were re-arrested," said Randa Wahbe, an advocacy officer at Addameer, a Palestinian prisoners' support organisation. "Today, there are 12 who are currently back in Israeli prisons."
Ibrahim Abu Hijleh was one those released during the Shalit prisoner exchange, only to be re-arrested eight months later. Abu Hijleh had served nine years of a 24-year sentence on charges of belonging to a military cell of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).
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"We were beyond ourselves with happiness when he was released," said Abu Hijleh's wife, Tha'era, in her Ramallah home. "When my husband was jailed, my younger son was nine years old. His father was released when he was 18, so you can only imagine what it was like to have him back with us."
For months, well-wishers would stream into their home and, according to Tha'era, Abu Hijleh had barely begun to enjoy his newfound freedom when he was re-arrested in June 2012. Israeli soldiers came to their home at 4am and took Abu Hijleh back to prison for allegedly violating the terms of his release. "The painful part is that my husband didn't know he would be met with this same fate again," she said.
Today, Abu Hijleh is facing the prospect of serving out the rest of his original sentence - 15 years. Tha'era said her husband was never clearly told the precise terms of the agreement signed between the parties involved in the prisoner release - Hamas, Egypt, and Israel - in 2011. "What he understood was that he wasn't allowed to engage in any political activity," she said. "This is very vague. Going to a symposium here can be misconstrued as a political act."
Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said: "The former convicted prisoners were re-arrested by the Israel Defence Forces for violation of the terms of their release or for committing additional criminal activities. The IDF will continue to operate to safeguard the State of Israel and its civilians."
According to one poll, 85 percent of Israeli Jews oppose the upcoming prisoner release. Israeli authorities called it a bitter pill to swallow, but one that was necessary to return to the negotiating table.
"It's not easy for the cabinet ministers, and it is not easy for the bereaved families, whose feelings I understand," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week as the cabinet prepared to vote on the release. "But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the nation, and this is one of those moments."
Addameer expects that, with this new round of prisoner releases, some detainees will either be re-arrested, deported or internally displaced to the Gaza Strip. "Prisoners don't have amnesty and could be re-arrested and made to serve out the rest of their sentence," Wahbe explained.
Palestinian detainees released as a result of political agreements are not pardoned, they are merely released on parole. Under Article 186 of Israeli Military Order 1651, a special committee can determine whether a released prisoner can be made to serve out the remainder of his original sentence if it rules they violated the terms of their release, based on, among other things, secret evidence to which the prisoner is not privy.
There are women and children in prison, there are sick detainees. One set of prisoners shouldn't be favoured over the other. They are all worthy of freedom. I would have preferred they all be released.
In February, Addameer petitioned Israel's High Court against this order, calling it "completely unjustified and undermin[ing of] the protection of prisoners and ex-prisoners".
The group's Randa Wahbe said that, if the past were any indication, "Israel's policy of arrest and detention will continue, despite the prisoner releases".
Between October 18 and December 15, 2011, some 470 Palestinians were arrested, reports Addameer, around the same time that 477 others were released in Phase I of the Shalit prisoner swap.
"This military order ensures that detainees are sent back to prison for the most trivial of reasons," Tha'era said. Her husband has been re-incarcerated for 13 months so far, and he is still waiting to find out whether he will serve out the rest of his original sentence. Tha'era is preparing for the worst, reliving what she calls a miserable memory.
"I will go back to the 12-14 hour journeys to get to the prison where my husband is being held, only to see him for 45 minutes, twice a month."
While Tha'era supports the upcoming release of the pre-Oslo detainees, she said the Palestinian leadership should have exhausted every effort to release all prisoners. Today, there are 4,827 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, according to Military Court Watch, a monitoring group. "One-hundred four prisoners is a small price for Israel to pay to go back to negotiations," Tha'era said. "There are women and children in prison, there are sick detainees. One set of prisoners shouldn't be favoured over the other. They are all worthy of freedom. I would have preferred they all be released."
Addameer said that detention and arrest throughout prisoner releases have been occurring since the start of negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel. "After Oslo I was signed, 1,000 prisoners were released. In April of that same year , some 2,700 Palestinians were arrested," Wahbe said, adding that there were expectations that in the upcoming prisoner release, some detainees would be deported.
"In 2011, there were over 200 cases of deportations and forced displacement. We are expecting that this would happen this time around," she said.
"There are no guarantees that all prisoners will be able to go back to their original homes. The implications are huge, and mostly they cause a fragmentation of society."
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